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The Tao of Lucy:
50 Years of Laughter
By Sarah "Dixie" Feldman

Image © AP/Wide World 

Have you ever noticed how certain TV series function as a common mythos that helps us communicate universal and sometimes complex ideas? In bars, at parties and around water-coolers across America, you can often hear someone chirp: "Like that planet where Captain Kirk..." or "Like that Twilight Zone where they're stuck in that diner with the bobbing, fortune-telling devil head?"

I Learn From Lucy
For millions of Americans, I Love Lucy is a Rosetta Stone offering guidance and insights on a wealth of issues. A televisual I-Ching, Lucy reruns speak to such timeless questions as "What if my best friend is wearing an identical dress to mine on TV?" and "Is my husband trying to kill me?" and "How do I meet William Holden?"

Informing the popular imagination for half a century, I Love Lucy premiered in 1951, and we haven't been loveless since. Presciently shot on film rather than kinescope, I Love Lucy has stood the test of time, and nearly 200 episodes have been rerun (and rerun, and rerun) all over the globe. Starring Lucille Ball and real-life husband Desi Arnaz, the serious ran under various guises until 1957, won several Emmys, influenced situation comedies, and captured our hearts and imaginations for decades to come.

For those of us who suckled on the tele-teat of Lucyism, there was a lot of information and inspiration to be found on:

 Image © Corbis

Marriage
To many, I Love Lucy is the story of an enduring marital relationship, one that is able to weather familiar domestic dilemmas like money, mother-in-laws, jealousy, power struggles, thwarted dreams and Tennessee Ernie Ford. An Everywoman, we recognize Lucy's struggles as our own: trick your husband into getting you a mink coat, make him pay you more compliments, insinuate yourself into his film debut.

Generally, what Lucy wanted was to play a less passive role, to be more actor than acted upon. She wanted attention and what's wrong with that? We all want it; Lucy was just very up-front and focused about getting it. Not one to repress her insecurities, Lucy tackled them head-on, and since her fears were our fears, we rejoiced in her flagrant disregard for propriety in her quest for inclusion. For example, when Lucy wonders whether her husband would be unfaithful, she eschews the obvious and dons a black wig and tries to trick up and pick up Ricky with her ersatz Gina Lola Bridgida disguise. When she fears Ricky's violent reaction when he sees the bill for the couture Don Loper dress she's mistakenly purchased, she completely sidesteps domestic battery by getting herself so sunburned he'll refrain from laying his conga-pounding hands upon her. That's ingenuity!


 Image © AP/Wide  World
Friendship
Though some saw Lucy as a show about marriage, it was as much about friendship. Lucy and Ethel are seminal TV female friends: close, conspiratorial, competitive and creative. Together they paved the way for resourceful duos like Laverne and Shirley, Roseanne and Jackie, Edina and Patsy, and Will and Grace.

They did occasionally undermine one another; there was a nasty election incident, not to mention those competing diners, "Little Bit of Cuba" and "Big Hunk of America." Mostly the girls were there for each other. Though in real life Lucy had Vivian Vance contractually obligated to remain on the zaftig side, this apparently never kept Vivian from being friends with Lucy offscreen as well as on.

Fashion
Where does one begin? Lucy's black cigarette pants with the ballerina flats. Ethel's cute housedresses. Mrs. Ricardo's charming smock blouses obscuring the unborn Little Ricky. Fred's pants the belt line was eerily close to his nipples! Ricky's cool two-tone short jackets and his Cuban heels. (Seriously, check out Ricky's/Desi's shoes there's like a 3-inch lift!) Lucy and cohorts donned so many great outfits, but standouts include:

My all-time favorites: Lucy's Italian babe outfit (complete with black poodle-cut wig) and Ethel's Eskimo/Japanese/Native American ensemble. (Ethel's pastiche of a costume shop's wares, including geisha wig, squash-blossom necklace and moccasins have Lucy exclaiming, "You look like an ad for a trip around the world!")
The chic but faux Parisian couture burlaps and bucket outfits
The alluring , back-firing "wicked city woman" dress meant to frighten cousin Ernie
The Marilyn getup Lucy wears in her swivel-hipped entrance for a Hollywood talent scout
Lucy's many gypsy outfits for grape-stomping, operettas and other occasions
Ethel's one-shoulder leopard skin gown and Lucy's sparkling halter, worn after graduating from charm school
Lucy's "cuffed dungarees topped with gingham and plaid shirts" look

Career
Though destiny made her a housewife, sheer force of will made Lucy Ricardo at various times a model, circus performer, movie star, saxophonist, sculptor, ballerina, candy factory worker, and famously, a TV pitchwoman. Undeterred by her complete lack of talent and experience, Lucy's dogged pursuit of the show biz spotlight is an inspiration to us all.

Travel
Stuck for ideas on what to do in other states and foreign lands? Let Lucy be your guide! When in Hollywood, why not climb into a movie star's yard for that extra special, one of a kind souvenir? When in Gay Paree, be sure to check out the latest fashions just be sure you're not rooked into wearing a horse's feedbag. And when in London, do meet the queen! (Don't forget to practice your curtsy!)

The Zen of Zany
As you can see, I Love Lucy can function as a travel guide, a marriage manual or a comprehensive fashion template for myriad activities, including crawling out on a ledge dressed as Superman. So next time you find yourself in a jam, look to the wit and wisdom of the Lucy canon and all will be revealed.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2001 issue of ATOMIC Magazine.  

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2003 Articles List
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